Russia’s Nuclear Signalling: Non-Strategic Nuclear Exercises and Future Doctrine Changes

Nikita Degtyarev

3 July 2024

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Open Nuclear Network or any other agency, institution or partner.

Against the backdrop of deteriorating international security, significant events in the military sphere of the Union State of Russia and Belarus took place in May and June.

Firstly, two stages of non-strategic nuclear exercises were conducted, with the third stage yet to be executed. Following the exercises, Belarus announced that its forces are now prepared to use non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) in the event of an attack on the country. Moreover, it appears that the Union State exercises will become a routine practice.

Secondly, Russian authorities are considering possible adjustments to the nuclear doctrine. Furthermore, if there were any questions about whether the Russian nuclear umbrella extends to the territories of Donbas, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, Vladimir Putin's statements in June allow for an interpretation (though not a final confirmation) that it does. The one piece of good news is that the President still does not see a need to use nuclear weapons.

More details are provided in this text.

Justification for Nuclear Exercises 

On 6 May, the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced exercises involving non-strategic nuclear forces with missile formations of the Southern Military District, including aviation and the Navy. These exercises aimed to provide “practical training in the preparation and use” of NSNW to maintain readiness to use these weapons and “unconditionally ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state in response to provocative statements and threats of individual Western officials.” The selected military district is notable as it is responsible for Crimea, as well as Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions. Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov added that the exercises were associated with an unprecedented round of tension in the Ukrainian conflict and were provoked by statements made by French President Emmanuel Macron, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron and “the Americans.”[1]

Later in the day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Russia issued a statement on the exercises. It reiterated the connection of Russian military exercises to “the recent militant statements made by Western officials and the highly destabilising actions taken by several NATO countries.”  

The statement also raised concerns about the United States’ (US) deployment of ground-based intermediate- and shorter-range missiles in Europe and the Asia-Pacific Region during the military exercises, “which shows that the manufacturing and testing of these weapons are in full swing.” According to the statement, if the US deploys such systems, Russia will do the same. “In reply to US actions, Russia will step up the upgrade and start manufacturing similar missile systems. This would not take long, taking into account the previously announced R&D projects and progress in the… defence industry.” 

Other mentioned concerns included the transfer of F-16 aircraft (which Russia regards as nuclear-capable “no matter the modification of these aircraft”) to Ukraine[2] and Warsaw’s consideration of deploying US nuclear weapons in Poland. 

Stages of Nuclear Exercises

The nuclear exercises so far consisted of two stages (out of the announced three) conducted throughout May and June with the participation of Belarus as a member of the Union State. Interestingly, although Belarus was not mentioned as a participant of the first stage of the exercises (it was officially brought up during the second stage in June), Belarus started NSNW exercises in May, a day after Russia’s MoD announcement.

Stage One


On 7 May, a surprise inspection of military forces and NSNW carriers was announced in Belarus. The event involved the Iskander missile systems and a squadron of Su-25 aircraft. 

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko stated, “The missile divisions of the Iskander and Polonez… will practise delivering missile strikes to repel a possible attack on Belarus.” It is curious that the Belarusian missile system Polonez, which is not a carrier of nuclear weapons, was mentioned. Perhaps, within the framework of the exercises, a mixed missile strike with nuclear and non-nuclear warheads was intended to be practised, or it might have just been a slip of the tongue. 

Aleksandr Lukashenko added that the direct transmission of signals for the training use of NSNW was carried out by the General Staffs of Belarus and Russia. The exercises were intended to ensure the readiness of the Belarusian military to “work with special munitions” and “to fine-tune the mechanisms of troop management and coordination” of the Union State’s command and control bodies. In conclusion, the President of Belarus noted that NSNW are weapons of deterrence and defence, not offence. 


After the announcement of the exercises on 6 May, no actions were taken in Russia for more than two weeks. Finally, on 21 May, the silence was broken, and Russia’s MoD announced the start of “the first stage of the exercise.” The MoD provided a video showing the 12th Main Directorate of the Russian Federation (12th GUMO) caravan, Iskander-M (with aeroballistic and cruise missiles), Tu-22M3 long-range bomber and MiG-31I Kinzhal carrier. 

After the exercises 

Speaking about the exercises later, Lukashenko mentioned that this was Belarus’ “third training session since the deployment of nuclear weapons” in Belarus and is similar to NATO nuclear sharing exercises. Russian President Vladimir Putin added: “Russia has regularly conducted strategic nuclear exercises as well as manoeuvres involving its non-strategic nuclear deterrence forces… after deploying part of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear potential to Belarus, we began holding joint exercises with our Belarusian allies.” 

Stage Two

The second stage of the exercises took place in June. It was openly stated that this training involved both Russia and Belarus "to unconditionally ensure the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Union State." Belarusian media coverage of the exercises was a day ahead of the Russian coverage; in Belarus, the exercises began to be reported on 10 June, while in Russia – on 11 June. Before the start of the exercises, Vladimir Putin shared information on the yield of Russian tactical nuclear weapons – 70-75 kt (numbers that had not been shared publicly before).

Elaborating on the context of the exercises, the Belarusian Minister of Defence Viktor Khrenin mentioned Western countries’ statements permitting the use of their weapons supplied to Ukraine to strike the Russian territory and Lithuania's MFA call for strikes on Russia’s military targets located in Belarus. Therefore, the exercises were “carried out in the interests of our own security and are scheduled” with “no goal of creating any tension in regional security issues”. “All organisational and technical aspects are worked out in close cooperation with our Russian colleagues and together with them.” And now the “Armed Forces of Belarus are ready to use special nuclear weapons.” Official photos and videos were shared.

The Russian MoD added that the exercise of the Union State was “aimed at maintaining the readiness of military personnel and hardware of the combat use of non-strategic nuclear weapons.” Russian missile units from the Leningrad Military District and crews from the Navy (likely the Baltic Fleet, though officially not specified) participated in the second phase of the exercises. The exercises involved receiving special training warheads, mating them with delivery systems and deploying them to designated patrol areas in preparation for missile launches. Official videos were shared (1, 2, 3). In addition to already shown systems, experts spotted Moskit anti-ship cruise missile system. Statement by Chief of the 12th GUMO Igor Kolesnikov concluded the second stage:

  • “… issues of joint training of Belarusian combat units and Russian nuclear support units were worked out.”
  • Mobile units of the 12th GUMO “ensured the delivery of nuclear training ammunition to field storage depots of the position area of the missile brigade and the operational air base of Ground-Attack Aviation.”
  • “On the basis of the exercises, the results of each training topic will be summarised and directions for further development of the training of non-strategic nuclear forces will be identified, with a view to ensuring the fulfilment of tasks under various scenarios of the military and political situation.”

Thoughts from experts 

Comments from experts in the media also provided interesting insights about the exercise.[3]

  1. The official and public linkage of the NSNW exercises to the current international situation is unprecedented. The political implications of this signal to NATO may be more significant than the practical exercises themselves. 
  2. The exercises represent a step towards further escalation and signalling to NATO countries. If the signalling fails to achieve its intended goal, there is a likelihood of further escalation. Possible scenarios include activity at Russian central storage facilities (where NSNW are stored), the deployment of NSNW on delivery systems and the initiation of patrols by carriers with nuclear warheads.
  3. Exercises with NSNW do not automatically imply that their use is the next step. However, the dynamic is still rather dangerous in an environment where neither side is willing to relinquish its goals and step down. 
  4. The question remains: How institutionalised is the nuclear decision-making process within the Union State of Russia and Belarus? Do the two countries have their own equivalent of NATO Nuclear Planning Group?
  5. Finally, there may be a potential shift in Russia's nuclear doctrine in the future. Doubts about the effectiveness of non-nuclear deterrence can lead to changes in the formulations and concepts associated with nuclear deterrence.

Preparation for Nuclear Doctrine Change

The informational preparation for the change of Russia’s nuclear doctrine can be already seen. On 17 May, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov mentioned that Russia would mirror NATO’s approach of strategic ambiguity towards Russia.

Moreover, while stating that all the conditions for the use of nuclear weapons are outlined in the current Russia’s nuclear doctrine (adopted in 2020), Vladimir Putin used the  phrasing which differed from the wording in the current doctrine: “nuclear weapons can be used only in exceptional cases – when there is a threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country, in exceptional circumstances.” The current doctrine specifies four scenarios for nuclear weapon use, including responses to 1) ballistic missile attacks, 2) use of WMDs against Russia or its allies, 3) attack against governmental or military sites critical for nuclear forces response actions, and 4) conventional aggression threatening the state's existence. Putin’s latest comments potentially hint at a broader scope for nuclear use in the future doctrine, more openly stating the scenario of sovereignty and territorial integrity protection.

In this context, it is also important to note that during his meeting with senior MFA officials, Putin stressed that “Kherson and Zaporozhye regions, as well as the Donetsk and Lugansk … have become part of the Russian Federation. And there can be no talk of disturbing our state unity This matter is closed forever and is no longer a matter for discussion… The Ukrainian troops must be completely withdrawn from the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics and Kherson and Zaporozhye regions… from the entire territory… within their administrative borders at the time of their being part of Ukraine.” This statement is interesting regarding the question of whether the Russian nuclear umbrella extends to the territories of Donbas, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. At the same time, one should not exclude the possibility that the statement was made not in connection with nuclear weapons use but as a normal maximalist position before the start of future negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

The president also said that the nuclear doctrine “is a living instrument, and we are closely monitoring developments in the world around us, and we do not rule out the possibility of making changes to this doctrine.” Just a year ago, in October 2023, Putin saw no need to change Russia's nuclear doctrine.

When discussing Vladimir Putin’s recent statements, it is worth  concluding the text with his response to Sergei Karaganov's[4] question (or even request) to increase the level of escalation up to nuclear use, Putin expressed disbelief that the use of tactical nuclear weapons can help reduce the number of casualties in the current conflict in Ukraine, in the contrary, “... [casualties] could increase indefinitely.” He ended the debate by saying, “… I proceed on the assumption that it will never come to that, and we do not have such a need... We don't need to think about it. Please, I would also ask everyone not to mention such things in vain again.” On 20 June, answering the journalist’s question, he added that a preventive strike option is not needed in the doctrine.

Nikita Degtyarev is a Research and Engagement Assistant for Open Nuclear Network, where he works on the testing of tools for open source data analysis. His research interests include open source research and nuclear risk reduction, nuclear non-proliferation, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and NATO nuclear policy. Prior to joining ONN, Nikita was an Information & Publications Program Coordinator at the PIR Center, writing and editing papers related to the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), editing the non-proliferation-focused e-journal Yaderny Kontrol (Nuclear Control) and maintaining the organization's website and social media accounts. During his master's degree studies, Nikita interned at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP) where he conducted research on NATO nuclear sharing arrangements and long-range conventional missiles in Europe. He also interned at the Representative Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. Nikita received his bachelor's degree in International Relations from Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg, Russia. He is a graduate of the dual degree master's program of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) and the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), majoring in global security, nuclear policy and WMD non-proliferation. Nikita speaks Russian, English and basic German.
Contact: ndegtyarev@oneearthfuture.org

[1] A reference to the following House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries’s statement: “We can't let Ukraine fall because if it does, then there's a significant likelihood that America will have to get into the conflict — not simply with our money, but with our servicewomen and our servicemen.” See: Brit McCandless Farmer, ‘Democratic leader Jeffries: "Pro-Putin faction" in GOP delayed Ukraine aid’, CBS News, 5 May 2024, <https://www.cbsnews.com/news/democrat-leader-jeffries-pro-putin-faction-in-gop-delayed-ukraine-aid-60-minutes/?intcid=CNR-02-0623>.

[2] Sergey Lavrov later added about the F-16 transfer to Ukraine: “… we can only consider the decision to supply these systems… as a deliberate signal from NATO concerning nuclear weapons. They are trying to tell us that the United States and NATO are ready to use literally anything in Ukraine.” 

[3] The statements below are based on the opinions of experts from IMEMO (Ilya Kramnik, Dmitry Stefanovich), VCDNP (Nikolai Sokov), UNIDIR (Pavel Podvig) shared in different interviews: Elena Chernenko, ‘Уроки хороших маневров’ [Lessons in good maneuvers], Коммерсантъ, 6 May 2024, <https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/6688147 >; Vladimir Kulagin, Gleb Mishutin, Alexey Nikolsky, ‘Россия проведет учения по отработке применения нестратегического ядерного оружия’ [‘Russia will conduct exercises to test the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons’], Ведомости, 7 May 2024, <https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2024/05/07/1035853-v-otvet-na-ugrozi-s-zapada-rossiya-provodit-ucheniya-s-takticheskim-yadernim-oruzhiem>; Ekaterina Postnikova, ‘Что значат заявления России об учениях с тактическим ядерным оружием: Москва дала ответ на заявления Запада о возможной отправке войск на Украину’ [‘What do Russian statements about exercises with tactical nuclear weapons mean: Moscow responded to Western statements about the possible sending of troops to Ukraine’], РБК, 6 May 2024, <https://www.rbc.ru/politics/06/05/2024/6638c15e9a7947e85207d8d8>; Dmitry Stefanovich, ‘Какую цель могут преследовать учения по применению тактического ядерного оружия’ [‘What purpose can exercises on the use of tactical nuclear weapons serve’], Профиль, 17 May 2024, < https://profile.ru/military/kakuju-cel-mogut-presledovat-ucheniya-po-primeneniju-takticheskogo-yadernogo-oruzhiya-1509730/ >.

[4] Sergey Karaganov is a prominent Russian professor who started the debate in Russia on the possible use of nuclear weapons with his article “A Difficult but Necessary Decision.” See: Sergey Karaganov, ‘A Difficult but Necessary Decision’, Russia in Global Affairs, 13 June 2023, <https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/articles/a-difficult-but-necessary-decision/>.

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